Labor Day: Stories about trying to make a baby

This week we’re presenting two stories about people trying to become parents.

Part 1: After finally getting together in their forties, Chris Wade and his wife are determined to have a baby -- even if it means following some unconventional advice.

Chris Wade is a native Washingtonian and a retired member of the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, DC. He is a Certified Healthcare Protection Administrator and currently works in healthcare security. Chris is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University Police Executive Leadership Program, is a certified Mental Health First Aid instructor and a certified CPI Nonviolent Crisis Intervention instructor. He is married to his best friend and simply adores his children. His life is filled with countless adventures which he is willing to share through storytelling.

Part 2: Struggling to conceive, Sara Sweet makes her third attempt at intrauterine insemination just before her family's Christmas gathering.

Sara Sweet is a writer and storyteller from Boston. She is a Moth Grand Slam champion and has been a featured teller with Fugitive Stories, Now Hear This, Listen Up Storytelling, Life Is Good and the Moth MainStage.Sara and her husband are aunt and uncle to 8 nieces and nephews.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Chris Wade

I was in the room all alone.  The lights were dim.  The door was locked and my seat was reclined all the way back.  I had a stack of porno magazines to my right and porno DVDs to my left.  And the best part about it is my wife was actually giving me permission this time. 

You see, we met when we were 21 years old at a New Years Eve house party.  I walked in, I saw her, she saw me.  I made a beeline across the room and I asked her to dance.  And without any hesitation, she told me no. 

After confessing to her that she was the only person in there shorter than me, she agreed to one dance. 

But I had a girlfriend at the time so we settled for becoming best friends and spent the next two decades in this vicious cycle of one person being in a relationship while the other one is single.  Then finally the stars aligned, we started dating and we got married.  We were eager to have our first child but we were in our forties and it wasn’t happening in the natural way so we decided to pursue in vitro fertilization. 

One of the first things they requested was a semen sample from me and that’s how I found myself in the room. 

Chris Wade shares his story with the Story Collider audience at The Bier Baron Tavern in Washington DC in April 2019. Photo by Lauren Lipuma.

Chris Wade shares his story with the Story Collider audience at The Bier Baron Tavern in Washington DC in April 2019. Photo by Lauren Lipuma.

Two weeks later, a few weeks later, they call me up to come in for a second sample.  I remember getting up that morning.  I even dabbed on a little cologne.  And when I got there, this time they gave me a sign that said ‘Do Not Enter’ and said, “Put it on the door right down the hall.” 

But when I went in, the room was different this time.  There were no porno magazines or DVDs, no recliner.  There was a sink, a urinal and a toilet.  It was a restroom. 

Now, I'd worked under these conditions before but I kind of miss the ambiance of the room. 

A few more weeks go by they call me up for a third sample.  They said this time just do it at home and bring it in within two hours.  So my wife sent me down the basement because, apparently, that’s where we collect semen samples in my house.  And I wasn’t upset because I’d worked under these conditions before, but I couldn’t help think about all those kids I probably left in those balled-up napkins beside my bed when I was 13 and 25, okay, and 40. 

I started sharing my seminal challenges with probably more people than I should have, like my physical therapist.  She insisted I meet her Uncle Jessie.  Now, Uncle Jessie was from Jamaica.  He lived in the U.S.  He had a rack of kids and he made porno movies starring himself.  

He insisted that I drink Irish Moss.  Now, Irish Moss is this algae seaweed that he had blended into a smoothie beverage and sold for ten dollars a bottle, two for fifteen. 

I shared it at church and Deacon Jones pulled me to the side one day and said I needed to try his Chinese extract.  He claimed it was made up of these Chinese herbs and minerals that had helped with fertility for centuries.  He sold it for ten dollars a bottle, two for fifteen. 

It had this black motor oil consistency color and I remember when I took my first sip, my thought was, “Maybe we can adopt or start spending more time with our nieces and nephews.” 

But I was committed.  That’s how I met Dr. Wu.  Now, Dr. Wu was the brother of the cashier that sold the Chinese herbs and minerals to Deacon Jones.  He did acupuncture and he said if my wife had an acupuncture treatment that would help with our fertility. 

But my wife is terrified of needles but I convinced her to just try one treatment.  Made an appointment, we went to his office, which turned out to be a house over in Northwest.  He took us in the treatment room, which looked a lot like a living room to me.  And that’s where I watched my wife go through what appeared to be the most painful acupuncture treatment ever. 

At one point he plugged something in and started sending these electric shocks to the needles.  She was twitching and jumping.  She looked like she was in so much pain I couldn’t take it anymore, so I looked away. 

That’s when I noticed there was no degree on the wall, not even like a certificate.  Where’s your lab coat?  Who are these people out here waiting to get their taxes done?  So realizing this was all my fault, I leaned in, I grabbed her hand and I whispered in her ear, “I love you.” 

I remember she turned and looked at me with these tears streaming down her face and she said, “I’ma fuck you up.” 

Then there was Sergeant Row,  Sergeant Row was prior military.  She was a former bodybuilder.  She was a physical fitness instructor for the police department.  She was five-foot tall and always stood at parade rest. 

She said, “You need to get sticky tea.” 

Chris Wade shares his story with the Story Collider audience at The Bier Baron Tavern in Washington DC in April 2019. Photo by Lauren Lipuma.

Chris Wade shares his story with the Story Collider audience at The Bier Baron Tavern in Washington DC in April 2019. Photo by Lauren Lipuma.

I’m like, “Look, I’m already drinking this Chinese motor oil and this seaweed.” 

She's like, “No.  You need to get sticky tea for your wife.” 

I’m like, “What’s sticky tea?” 

Sticky tea was this raspberry organic tea that she claimed would line the uterus, my wife’s uterus, and the egg would get there and stick and stay the whole time.  But the only problem was the one store that sold it was in not the safest neighborhood in D.C., but she insisted. 

“You need to get over there by 5:00 and get some of that sticky tea.” 

So I asked her, “Do they close at 5:00?”

“No, you need to get in and out of that neighborhood before the sun goes down.” 

So I went and picked up two boxes of sticky tea.  They sold them ten dollars a box, two for twenty.  Apparently, they weren’t doing the two-for-fifteen thing in that neighborhood.

In the end, we had fourteen followups.  My wife and I were getting excited then we learned that 99% of those disintegrate without ever producing an egg. 

But we ended up with three eggs: one that wasn’t viable, one that didn’t fertilize, but one that did.  Given our age at the time, we had a less than 1% chance of the in vitro being in a success. 

Five months into the pregnancy we went to a concert similar to this.  My wife went to the restroom and, when she returned, she whispered that she was showing symptoms that looked like she was miscarrying. I raced to the emergency room and all that kept playing through my mind was the doctor telling us that our chances of having a kid were slim to none. 

They hooked her up to a sonogram and all we saw were these little legs just kicking away.  Sticky tea. 

November that year we had our son.  A few years later we decided to try in vitro again but, apparently, they had an age cut-off for my healthcare provider so, to console ourselves, we went to a comedy show up in Philly and saw five of the most hilarious comedians ever.  Then we went back to the hotel and had that bomb hotel sex.  Nine months later, we had my daughter. 

They say it takes a village to raise a child, and I’m a firm believer of that.  But sometimes it takes a village to have one too.  Thank you.

Part 2: Sara Sweet

I am sitting in the waiting room of the fertility doctor’s office and all the magazines in here are about babies or mothers or breastfeeding and I’m just looking for something to take my mind off pregnancy because I am not pregnant, like just an US Magazine or even a Golf Digest.  There is a poster on the wall of a family and their doctor and it says, “Making families together.”  This is kind of creepy but also a pretty accurate depiction of what is going on here. 

After a year of no luck trying the natural way, my husband and I have turned to IUI, intrauterine insemination.  You know, the turkey baster.  Where they basically take the sperm and put it right into your uterus, kind of cutting out the whole trip so it can just get to the egg fast.  It’s like the sperm is taking an Uber or a Lyft instead of walking those last few blocks. 

And I am excited about this.  It’s the easy part.  It’s all the stuff beforehand that’s hard, like the injections.  I have to give myself shots of a drug that’s supposed to stimulate my ovulation.  I am afraid of needles.  Not really afraid.  It’s more like a full-blown phobia.  The mere thought of a needle renders me absolutely terrified and so my husband has to give me these injections.  He can barely get the needle to puncture the skin of my tummy pooch because I am screaming so loud and he is laughing so hard. 

But he's really got the short end of the stick because not only does he have to give me the injections, he has to make the sample.  His first attempt at doing this at the doctor’s office is hampered by some fussy venetian blinds and what he calls less-than-inspirational materials.  So we are sent home so he can do this where he's more comfortable.

He does, but then we have to rush back to the doctor’s office and, of course, we have to go on Storrow Drive, and this is a test to both our marriage and my skills as a Boston driver.  We do make it there on time but, unfortunately, our first attempt at IUI is a failure. 

Sara Sweet shares her story on the Story Collider stage at Oberon Theater in Boston, MA in April 2019. Photo by Kate Flock.

Sara Sweet shares her story on the Story Collider stage at Oberon Theater in Boston, MA in April 2019. Photo by Kate Flock.

So we try a second time and we do everything right, no mistakes, and it doesn’t work. 

Our doctor tells us, “You know, IUI does help increase the chance that you'll get pregnant but there are no guarantees.” 

I’m frustrated because I’m all in.  I am getting books out from the library, I’m reading WebMD all day long, and I’m getting braver at needles.  But nothing we’re doing seems to have an effect. 

Plus, the pressure is on because both of my sisters and my sister-in-law are all pregnant, and everyone is like, “It’s going to be so awesome that we’ll all be pregnant together.”  This is really playing upon my deepest fear, which is to be left out. 

It’s definitely starting to seem like I am going to be left out of this very cool girl gang, this tribe of all my female relations going through what most people call a miracle without me. 

By the time we get to our third IUI, the last the insurance will pay for, it’s nearly Christmastime.  I know the holidays are going to be rough anyway because we are going to my in-laws where we will be meeting our new nephew for the first time, also while waiting to see if this last IUI worked. 

Not to jinx it but my period is three days late by the time we sit down for dinner on Christmas Eve and so I get a little excited.  After dinner, I allow myself to think a few cute thoughts as I put on my pajamas, like the nickname ‘Peanut’ or naming a baby after my dad whether it’s a boy or a girl. 

But then, as if on cue from Judy Blume, I get a huge and horrible period, like the worst of all times.  I am definitely not pregnant. 

Downstairs, there is a ruckus.  It’s the grandparents.  They're oohing and aahing, fawning.  At long last, my brother-in-law and his wife have arrived with their brand new baby boy just twelve days old. 

I take one of those big, Are-you-there-God?-It’s-me-Margaret maxi pads, put it in my underpants, take the deepest breath in the history of breathing and go downstairs to meet him. 

Everyone is practically turning inside out with all the firstness and the cuteness and the Christmasness.  I am actually turning inside out because this period is more like a light hemorrhage.  I have a headache the size of double boiler and can only stare blankly at this baby who looks like a photocopy of my husband from when he was born.  I am not happy.  I am jealous and this makes me feel sad. 

Standing downstairs staring at this baby, I’m trying to not feel jealous.  I’m trying to feel Christmassy, but I can’t. 

“No, thanks,” I say, when the baby is thrust in my direction to hold. 

And this family is big on family.  It’s a bitter pill to swallow that it seems like we’re not able to contribute to the fold.  My husband and I survive the remainder of this visit by crying in secret and drinking a lot. 

But we decide we’re going to try a fourth time out of pocket.  We meet with a fertility doctor just after New Year’s.  I’m sitting with her in the office.  She's waiting for me to toss out a couple of dates that might be good to schedule the procedure.  When she tells me she's got my latest blood work and that my FSH level, follicle stimulating hormone is at 29, 29 is not good.  29 is high, like really high.  I mean, I’m not an expert but I have learned during this process that the ideal FSH level for someone trying to get pregnant is between three and fifteen. 

I’m crestfallen, but also a little bit angry.  Like I have been trying so hard.  Can’t any of my good, hard work count for something?  The answer is no, because that’s not how biology works.  Biology doesn’t give a shit how bad you want a baby or how many books you've read or how many death-defying trips you've made on Storrow Drive.  It is what it is.  And an FSH level of 29 is a no-go. 

But I ask her anyway, “Say, isn’t this a little bit high?  I mean would it be crazy to try this again?  I mean, would it be irresponsible?  Isn’t 29 in the no-go range?” 

“Yes,” she says, “but there's always hope.” 

Sara Sweet shares her story on the Story Collider stage at Oberon Theater in Boston, MA in April 2019. Photo by Kate Flock.

Sara Sweet shares her story on the Story Collider stage at Oberon Theater in Boston, MA in April 2019. Photo by Kate Flock.

And I’m like, “I've used up all of my hope.  Hope is no friend of science, and hope is certainly not enough.”  I tell her, “I think we’re going to pass on this next attempt.” 

She gives me a pamphlet on adoption as I leave her office. 

Spring comes around and I have yet to hold the baby.  I just can’t.  I feel like a jerk but I’m just too sad.  Me and my husband are both so depressed, me especially because, now, my failure has a name, premature menopause. 

Right after we find this wonderful news out, my brother-in-law gives us a call to check in and see if there's anything that we need.  And we tell him, “You know, we just need time,” like we can’t have a baby, I’m having menopause at forty, and everyone in our family has children, like we are up to our seventh niece and nephew now.  “We just need a minute.” 

And he's like, “Absolutely.” 

But then four weeks later, we’re all gathered together again and my brother-in-law tells me and my husband that he is disappointed that we haven't held his baby.  That he is annoyed and sad because he thought we were going to be the cool aunt and uncle. 

Now, I know having a baby makes you crazy, or so I have heard, but my brother-in-law proves this tenfold when he looks at me and says, “You know, you should really just hold the baby.  It will make you feel better.  Babies make everything better.” 

I look at him like Dirty Harry.  Is he kidding? 

“Are you kidding,” I say, “Because I know if I hold that baby, my heart will break into a million shitty pieces.  I know if I do anything as dangerous as cradle him or smell his little head, I'll be done for, brokenhearted for eternity.” 

I leave the room.  We don’t talk about holding the baby again. 

Time goes on and this baby morphs into a toddler and my husband and I start going to less and less family events.  I mean, we still do the top tier stuff, like Christmas and retirement parties, but as my nephew grows, so does the wall that my husband and I are building around ourselves.  Loving him just feels too impossible. 

The toddler is now a little guy.  He's like seven.  And I have held him, briefly, on my lap since that conversation, but mainly we just high-five and hug goodbye.  Even this, this most basic smidgeon of connection has taken time, a lot of time. 

As mysterious and fickle as the reproductive system is so, too, is the heart.  But my heart, unlike my eggs, I think might be a better listener and there's a chance that I can become the cool aunt.  I mean, there are no guarantees, but there's always hope.  Thank you.